Attempt a feminist reading of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

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It is not difficult to develop a feminist reading of Pride and Prejudice. In it, Austen critiques a social system that leaves most women of the gentry with no reasonable economic alternative to marriage.

The system of primogeniture, in which inheritance passes down only through male hands, stacks the...

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It is not difficult to develop a feminist reading of Pride and Prejudice. In it, Austen critiques a social system that leaves most women of the gentry with no reasonable economic alternative to marriage.

The system of primogeniture, in which inheritance passes down only through male hands, stacks the deck against the five Bennet sisters from the start. Because their parents never gave birth to a boy, their estate and its comfortable income will go to their cousin, Mr. Collins, upon their father's death. Their father married late in life, and if the girls do not marry, they will end up impoverished after he dies. Austen's novel implicitly (but never explicitly) questions why this is so: for what logical reason are the five daughters, who need the money more than Mr. Collins, a clergyman, passed over? A feminist reading would point out how unfair primogeniture was—and perhaps even note that earlier writers, like Richardson, spoke out against it (he does so in Sir Charles Grandison).

In a feminist reading, Mrs. Bennet's desperate quest to marry her daughters as quickly as she can to well-to-do men can be framed as less ridiculous than prudent. She knows that the alternative to marriage is poverty for her daughters, and she wants to protect them from that fate. Likewise, although Elizabeth is shocked and judgmental in response to her best friend's choice, in a world in which marriage has been made the only occupation with any kind of status or security for a woman, readers can easily understand Charlotte Lucas's hardheaded decision to marry Mr. Collins. He is a man who can provide for her, even if she does not love him.

Lydia's desperate situation when she runs off with Wickham illustrates the sexual double standard in operation during this time. She will be ruined and her family will be disgraced if Wickham does not marry her; Wickham, however, would get off for abandoning her with a mere slap on the wrist.

Finally, while the witty and assertive Elizabeth manages to marry for love—or at least a man she can esteem—she also understands the economic value of being mistress of Pemberley. Even for someone as talented as she is, marriage is her one and only way up the social ladder.

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